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The words “hate,” “bigotry” and “intolerance” are mis- and over-used. But that makes it more important that we speak out against the real thing when it’s there.
I’m so glad that he spoke out.
But let me also hasten to add that we shouldn’t leave it to the President to remind us of the need to condemn hate and evil – that’s the job of the Church.
The past few months have witnessed, to borrow from Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” a “rough beast” slouching to be born. That “rough beast” is open, and sometimes violent, expressions of bigotry and intolerance.
Now Christians have ample reasons to be wary of those words “bigotry” and “intolerance,” since we’re often unjustly accused of both. But to use the medieval Latin phrase, “abusus non tollit usum,” the misuse of something does not negate its proper use. There are such things as bigotry and intolerance.
Some of it, such as Texas high school students taunting their Hispanic opponents at a basketball game with chants of “build that wall!” are easy to rationalize as youthful hi-jinks, until you put yourself, as Jesus commands us to, in the shoes of the kids being taunted.
Other examples, such as the killing of an Indian-born engineer, and the wounding of two other people by a man who had earlier yelled “get out of my country!” are impossible to ignore. The fact that the man may been under the influence of alcohol when he pulled the trigger does not make the crime less troubling.
While alcohol lowers inhibitions, it doesn’t create the impulses being inhibited in the first place. To quote another Latin phrase, “in vino veritas,” or wine brings out the truth.
Likewise, the vandalizing of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester, New York, along with bomb threats against 120 Jewish Community Centers across the country is nothing less than alarming.
And it’s not just Jewish Community Centers. In the past two months, four mosques have been deliberately set on fire.
The good news is that, amidst all this hate, we have seen examples of grace: Two American Muslims raised over $140,000 to repair the damage done to Jewish cemeteries, and Muslim veterans have vowed to protect Jewish cemeteries. As one veteran tweeted, “If your synagogue or Jewish cemetery needs someone to stand guard, count me in. Islam requires it.”
Strictly speaking, while I am thankful for his words, I am not sure that it does. But there is no questions about Christianity. As Paul says in Acts 17, God determines when and where we live. And as Esther so courageously demonstrated in difficult times, silence is not an option.
What I Learned About Racism From Atticus Finch
Besides the Bible, To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book in the world—and the movie version is my favorite film. That’s partly because I’m a Southerner who appreciates this painfully probing look at Southern racism. I also love the novel because no one has ever made fictional characters come to life better than author Harper Lee.
Atticus Finch, the small-town Alabama lawyer who defends a black man in a rape trial in the 1930s, is a hero to me because of his courage to fight social injustice. I feel as if I know him, along with Atticus’ children, Jem and Scout; their black maid, Calpurnia; their neighbors Miss Maudie and Mrs. Dubose; the mysterious Boo Radley; and Tom Robinson, the man who is falsely accused of rape in a biased culture that refused to believe a black man could ever be innocent.
I thought of Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson many times last week. I wished I could have invited them over to my house for a glass of iced tea. We would have a lot to talk about.
On July 4th we celebrated Independence Day, and then we mourned for the next few days—first because of the questionable killings of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, in Louisiana and Minnesota, and then because of the shooting of five police officers in Dallas during a peaceful protest. Not since the 1960s has America felt such overwhelming racial tension.
As I listened to the chatter on the news and on social media last week, I couldn’t help but remember Atticus’ advice to his daughter. He told Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Isn’t that what we should do today? We cannot hope to rid ourselves of the spirit of racism that haunts our country until we sincerely try to understand each other.
Atticus Finch felt compassion for his black client, Tom Robinson, because he drove to Tom’s house in the country and sat on his front porch and got to know his family. He saw the fear on Tom’s face and heard the racial slurs he endured from local townsfolk. Atticus saw the world from Tom’s perspective. Atticus’ children learned the same lesson when they went to church with Calpurnia and saw how black Christians worshiped.
That’s the only way we’re going to end this ugly racial divide. We have to talk to each other. We have to sit on our porches together. We have to become friends and share each other’s burdens. We have to worship together. Laws alone will never tear down the walls of racism. Only compassion can destroy this evil.
I was not born black so I don’t understand what my black friends have experienced. I have never been stopped by a police officer and interrogated when I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I have never walked into a store and felt people staring at me or treating me with suspicion. I have never had to endure racial slurs. I have never been turned down for a job interview because of my race.
But I have black and Hispanic friends who have experienced racial cruelty. I’ve listened to their pain. I put myself in their place. I crawled into their skin.
When will we stop being afraid of each other?
Today marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most horrific episodes of racial violence in American history: the mutilation and public burning of Jesse Washington. It happened in my adopted hometown of Waco, Texas.
Historians call the late 19th and early 20th century the “nadir” of American race relations. The American South was ravaged and destabilized by the Civil War. The corrupt and abusive system of chattel slavery had formed the social structure of much of the pre-Civil War South. Emancipation had wrecked that structure.
For many whites, violence against “insolent” blacks seemed warranted in the war’s disorienting aftermath.
We Can’t Move On
It wasn’t a coincidence that the Ku Klux Klan was founded right after the Civil War, or that “lynching” became much more common in the post-Civil War South than it had ever been before. White Southerners were grasping to reassert order in their upside-down region. To be sure, the whole nation was experiencing its share of racial strife: the Klan of the 1920s was as big in the northern states as the South, for instance.
But the South has a special burden to carry with regard to those racial “nadir” decades. As my Baylor colleague James SoRelle has noted, more than 3,000 lynchings happened in America between 1889 and 1918. The vast majority of the victims, like Jesse Washington, were African Americans, and the vast majority of lynchings happened in the Southern states.
If you’re from the South, you don’t have to dig around too much to find hideous examples of racial violence from around the turn of the 20th century. But you do sometimes have to dig. My native hometown of Aiken, South Carolina, witnessed the lynching of three members of an African American family, the Lowmans, in 1926. I didn’t learn about that lynching until I was in my doctoral program at the University of Notre Dame.
I can understand why some might not be eager to discuss controversial topics like these lynchings. Shouldn’t we just move on, some might ask? Others would say—rightly, in my view—“No, we can’t move on.” Not until the history of racial violence in America is more fully acknowledged.
The steps leading to Jesse Washington’s lynching began when the body of a white woman named Lucy Fryer was discovered. Fryer had been killed by blows to the head. Authorities identified Washington, a 17-year-old field hand at the Fryers’ farm, as the chief suspect. Scholarly studies have debated how likely it was that Washington was involved with the crime, but the evidence against him was mixed. It included a confession of guilt from Washington, but there were no eyewitnesses to the murder. Washington’s lawyers offered no defense of their client.
A hastily summoned all-white jury convicted Washington of the killing. Then a mob of whites seized Washington and lynched him before a lunchtime audience of thousands in downtown Waco. They cut off parts of Washington’s body, hung him from a chain, and slowly burned him to death. A photographer took pictures of the loathsome scene, providing rare visual documentation of an actual lynching.
Reactions to Washington’s execution ran the gamut from hearty approval to disgust and revulsion.
Is your church racist?
You are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28
He himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. Ephesians 2:14
Christ is all, and in all. Colossians 3:11
I write to my white brothers. And I want to ask you to consider this searching question that I also ask myself. Is your church racist?
At one level, the obvious answer is No. People who resonate with TGC tend to align their convictions with the Bible. So the verses quoted above most of us will affirm strongly. The photograph above most of us will find disturbing. It is so blatant. But our strong agreement in these obvious ways only makes the question more worthy of conscientious reflection: Is your church racist? Is mine?
Here are some diagnostic questions I ask myself, to press into deeper insight. Is your church a white church where black people are welcome, or is your church a Christian church where all who love Jesus are equally accepted and equally influential? Are the black people in your church receiving and adapting to your church’s culture, or are they, with you, shaping and reshaping your church’s culture? Are there two circles of belonging in your church? Is there an inner circle of “us” and an outer circle of “them” — the latter belonging too, but not in the same way, not with the same embrace, the same identity, the same “us”? Does the “us-ness” in your church need to be broken and re-created, according to the parameters of the one gospel for all sinners who are standing equally on the same footing before the one Savior of all? Or are the unspoken ground rules for the outer circle more demanding than the ground rules for the inner circle? Do the outer-circle members have something to prove that the inner-circle members don’t have to prove? Is there any emotional aloofness dividing your church, or are you loving every member with the same emotional intensity? Finally, are the black members of your church on the same paths of growth and discipleship such that they too are on their way toward becoming leaders, deacons, elders and pastors? Or is it inconceivable that you could receive, rejoice over and submit to a black lead pastor in your church?
November 11, 2015
Tim Wolfe, former President of the University of Missouri school system, resigned on Tuesday when criticism burst over his handling of racism at Mizzou. (You can review a full timeline of recent events.) Protesting the administration’s apparent apathy in response, Jonathan Butler—a University of Missouri grad student—began a hunger strike. He said that he did not plan to end his strike until he died or Wolfe resigned. His strike won not only Wolfe’s resignation but Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin’s as well.
Butler’s strike incited the support of thousands on social media. Rallying behind Butler, the Mizzou football team lent their protest as well. Thirty-two members of the football team, with the support of their coach, said they would not play again until the president resigned.
Many students perceived Wolfe’s response—when he did finally respond to these acts—as tepid at best. Thus the protests, the hunger, the anger, and misunderstandings abounded. It’s the world’s way to pass on understanding and seeing one another, on loving one another, until it’s a PR problem. If the Tigers did not play their football game, they faced losing at least a million dollars.
I do not know the motivations of Wolfe and the Mizzou administrators. But I do know that God paid an infinitely higher cost to ensure that his own people would love one another, not for their reputation or their school’s reputation, but for his. God crushed his only Son to glorify himself by reconciling man with himself and man with each other. God then enjoins upon his followers to humbly and compassionately work out this reconciliation—to understand and love one another—to put others so much before ourselves that we essentially die to ourselves for each other (1 Pet. 3:8; Phil. 2:3). Christians, in doing so, emulate our Lord who died for us. We stupefy the world, directing their gaze to a glorious God (John 13:35).
While I won’t evaluate the solutions Wolfe did or did not offer, I can testify to the more excellent way that God offers from my own racist experience.
The More Excellent Way
By God’s grace, my local church leaders and members pray publicly and frequently to be united amid all our diversity. God recently answered this prayer for my wife and me this past Sunday as we walked to our church’s evening service.
It was one of those particularly encouraging Sundays, given that my wife and I got into an argument right before the service. By God’s grace, though, we quickly worked through it. Yet as we walked to our church’s building—which is located in one of the nicest parts of our mid-Atlantic city—a white gentlemen walking past us glanced at me, an African American. Then he glared at my wife, who is white, who is beautiful. This gentleman started loudly singing the following words:
“Too many niggers, too many niggers.”
Immediately I turned around and stared at this man. He stopped, looked at me, and said, “This city is the rape capitol of the world, and you’re surprised, nigger?” He turned around. He walked away.
My first response to this was shock, anger, and sadness. Left to myself, I would’ve despaired; I would’ve been bitter and believed that all white people think this way. You can imagine how such a belief would wreck my marriage and curb any love I had for my predominantly white church. But by God’s grace, when I turned around that night, two white sisters from my church—whom I’d never met—were walking right behind me. And when this man started singing this horrible song, one of the sisters compassionately looked at me, and she so graciously said, “Brother, just keep walking.” It was as if God said that to me. I know in my flesh I might have hit this man. But by God’s grace, our instinct was to stop right there and pray for this man and his salvation. By God’s grace, we blessed him even though he cursed me. I praise God those sisters and my wife—though ethnically different than me—suffered alongside me that night.
When I gather with my church, God reminds me that I have hundreds of people with me. That same Sunday night, when this white man accosted me and my wife, the pastor leading the service asked me to pray for unity in diversity in our church. (God’s providence is blatantly ironic sometimes!) I praise God that he’s given my church the grace to maintain that unity because if it wasn’t for God’s grace, many believers could be like that man or worse. I could be that man or worse.
So even though that incident with this white man makes me think twice about holding my wife’s hand in public, this event is cause for God’s praise. Later in the week my pastor—a white brother and dear friend—helped me fight any wrongful shame and embarrassment and encouraged me to share this event with my church. By God’s grace, the following Sunday I stood before my church to explain this humiliating event. Though made up of many different kinds of people, my church—as one family—mourned, wept, and prayed together. I have never experienced a corporate love like this especially after undergoing an individual’s hate.
I write this testimony today filled with hope because of God’s grace and love through my church. I thank God for my congregation’s consistent love and unity; it helps me fend off bitterness that the Mizzou’s of the world can perpetuate. Yes, racism still really happens and hurts real people. But my church’s love for one another reminds me of the hope we have in the gospel. Its unity amid all our diversity gives me a picture of what God intended for humanity.
June 19, 2015
But God does not. And his Word speaks to the terrors of identity idolatry. It speaks to how we demonize the opposite of what we idolize; we devalue the opposite of what we treasure; we hate the opposite of what we love. And Dylann Roof—the Charleston gunman, the domestic terrorist—ultimately loved his ethnicity. He rang out with the worst manifestation of his hatred: he took the lives of those who were the opposite of white, yet who bore the same image he did. Again, our words, so feeble, and our experiences, so limited, can hardly speak to this. But we don’t need our words or experiences to engage this because we have the Word of God.
Consider its commentary on the beginning of human history. What hand did Satan play in Eden? He laid his regular ace: attacking identity. He tempted Eve to believe God was not who he said he is. Adam negated his identity as a male, as one who was to protect and lead; Eve wandered outside of Adam’s authority, foiling her womanhood. Both actors took a good thing—identity—and made it an ultimate thing, which is the essence of idolatry. Both attempted to rise above their author, grasping for his identity, grasping for God-likeness. The tragic irony? They were already like him, for he had made them in his likeness (Gen. 1:26–28). But still they grasped, and so they died. God removed them from his fellowship.
The Tragedy of Identity Idolatry
Identity idolatry leads to toil and enmity. It leads to death. Worst of all, it leads to separation from God. This is at least one lesson we can learn from Charleston. And yet, to lesser extents, we see this lesson all around in different manifestations.
Dylann Roof’s rampage comes on the high heels of Vanity Fair’s reveal of Caitlynn Jenner, one who seemingly has everything yet is enveloped in a poor identity he trusts will satisfy. Roof’s horrible actions also trail Rachel Dolezal, a former NAACP chapter president who was caught lying about her ethnicity. She seems to elevate being black, a good thing, above anything and anyone else. All these are people. All these people are in the wrong place of hate and mental disillusion. And that’s partly due to their sinful self-loving, which violently turns into a loathing—possibly of self or of others—but certainly of God and the image he has so graciously bestowed on humans, the crown of his creation.
The tragedy, as my friend stated so well in this loving piece on Jenner, is that the snake is eating itself.
The General Church elections were held July 23 (1933), and these plainly forecasted the coming struggle. The “German Christians,” those clergy and layman who took a racist view of the German Church and sided with Hitler, gained 70% of the votes. Early in September the Prussian Gereral Synod, an important organ of the Church hierarchy, agreed to the Aryan Clauses. Only weeks later, Hitler insured that an election would make Army Chaplain Ludwig Muller, an ardent German Christian Reichsbischof, the major governing figure in the German Evangelical Church (William Kuhns, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 48).
How would Christians in twenty-first century America react if the both church leadership embraced teachings that are contrary to the truths of God’s Word?
On April 7 (1933), the Aryan Clauses were issued, forbidding anyone of Jewish origins or anyone married to a Jew from holding any office in the state. The prohibition extended to the Church, and was only the beginning of a long series of encroachments designed to usurp of the Church.
(William Kuhns, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 48).